FEBRUARY 2006 – NO. 3
My life not in film.
During my last two years of college at the University of Texas in Austin, I lived in a rambling, neglected Victorian house. It's still there at the corner of Avenue F and 41st St.; and when I'm back in Austin, I always drive by, stop, and look around. Some people visit their childhood homes, ask to look around, show the owners the secret hiding places, the hidden treasures. I visit my college house.
At times there were six or seven of us living there, and the arrangement made for cheap rent and a large, revolving cast of extras — acquaintances and friends of housemates whom I could pick out of a lineup, if it came to that, but about whom I knew little. I was never surprised to see one or more eating cereal on my couch as I made my way from bedroom to kitchen each morning. I recognized them as Eric's friend or Donna's friend or Laura's or Valerie's. I recognized them, so they had a good reason, I assumed, to be eating Cap'n Crunch in my living room.
Tommy, Donna's friend, was such a cereal eater. As I piece together my memories of Tommy, there's not just cereal-milk running down his chin, there's also the Spanish class. One day near the end of a semester, Tommy announced to a group of us sitting around the living room, "You know, I really think I signed up for Spanish this semester. I dunno. Dammit." Until that moment, he had forgotten that he had signed up for the class. He just forgot.
Sitting on that couch one morning, milk dripping down his chin, he asked us if we wanted to be in a movie that a friend of his was making. We all laughed.
"Sure, Tommy, we want to be in your friend's porn movie."
"No, it's a real movie, and he just needs some people to be in it."
We laughed again, and that was the last time Tommy mentioned the movie.
A year later I had graduated, moved to New York, and started a Ph.D. program in English. The first thing I learned in New York was to be nostalgic for Austin. Laboring under the influence of this nostalgia, I welcomed a visit from Valerie, a former housemate, who was in New York that spring for an internship. I couldn't get her to talk enough about Austin: the house, the university, hills, warm weather, lawn chairs, music, Mexican food, friends, acquaintances, the geography of a place with sunsets, home.
As we reminisced, Valerie mentioned a movie about — well, she didn't know what it was about, but it was filmed in Austin. That was enough. After a little looking we found out what the movie was called and that it was playing in the East Village at the Angelika. So that afternoon we walked through Greenwich Village to Austin.
We sat, expectant, a tub of popcorn resting between us. Then it happened. Not too far into the movie, a group of friends is having coffee at Captain Quackenbush's, a quirky coffee shop that's been sacrificed to Guadalupe Street's gentrification. One guy from the group gets up to leave, walking past the camera and out the door. He's "looking for his friend." That's the line he keeps repeating; it's also, according to the credits, the character's name. More important to my story, "Looking for A Missing Friend" is Tommy.
I remembered him in the house, sitting on the couch, eating cereal, forgetting about Spanish, asking me to be in his friend's movie. But there he was, towering above us on the screen at the Angelika in the East Village, walking down a street just west of campus in Austin. Valerie and I, slack-jawed, mumbled a few versions of "Shit! Is that Tommy?" and then sat in silent astonishment for the next hour and a half.
Slacker is the movie Tommy asked us to be in, the movie his friend was making, the movie I'm not in. My medieval philosophy professor is in it, as is the singer for Poi Dog Pondering. Most of late-'80s Austin is in it. I am not.
Richard Linklater, Tommy's friend, has gone on to direct a number of other movies in which I do not appear. I'm particularly fond of Dazed and Confused, Before Sunset, Waking Life, and Before Sunrise. And Tommy, Tommy Pallotta, has produced or filmed a number of movies in which I'm not.
I have made movies of my children's birthday parties, of their swimming lessons. I have helped my students adapt and film scenes from The Great Gatsby and make a documentary of their production of Edward Albee's Sandbox. I have appeared on film wrestling with my son, opening birthday and Christmas presents, and holding my sleeping daughter. But I was not in Slacker. I did not meet Richard Linklater. He did not ask me to be in Dazed and Confused. I am not Matthew McConaughey. When I drove from Boston to Colorado this summer, the trip was not documented for VH1. And Tommy did not animate me to appear in Waking Life.
I like to tell this story, the story about the movie I wasn't in. I don't really know why, though. I don't come off very well in it. I suppose it's like going back to the house, back to a time that now seems perfect. But of course things were not perfect, and my nostalgia isn't about wanting to go back in the past to relive it all over again. I do not wish to travel back in time to change a few key events and bring about a new, better present.
Certainly, though, there are many things I would change, and those are the stories I replay over and over again, knowing that I'll never say the right thing, act in a way that would make me remember my past self with pride, laugh only in joy, or say "That sounds great, Tommy, so tell me more about it."
This essay was published in a slightly different form in P.o.V.: The Journal of the Austin Film Society, December 2005.
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